Sunday, June 27, 2010

Compassion equals good reporting

This post doesn't have much to do with entertainment, but neither does my job when the weather gets bad.

When there's a big story at The Free Press, beats cease to matter. The entertainment writer can easily turn into the tornado-chaser or the crime reporter if something big happens, and I'm the only person available when we hear about it. Weather seems to be the most frequent catalyst. And, you know what? At first it's fun. Somebody like me, who writes about ballets and plays and music, gets that old feeling again when it's time to pitch in on actual news. It's that little rush, knowing I've got a very limited amount of time to go where the action is, talk to as many people as possible and hound police for as many details as I can before deadline. The pressure is exciting. Your job suddenly feels very important.

I had that feeling Friday as I sat home watching the weather deteriorate outside my window. Hail pelted windows on all sides of my house. It was pitch black. The cable and internet were out. The electricity was flashing on and off. And on my radio, I was listening to all kinds of callers reporting damage on the roads and funnel clouds dipping down. I knew when the weather let up, I might need to head to work to help out. One reporter can't be expected to cover the entire region, so volunteers are needed when the destruction is so wide-ranging.

When I finally got through to someone (The Free Press phone system was out for a while), I headed where I was needed. A house in upper North was struck by lightning and caught fire, and it sounded pretty bad. Getting there was tough. Lookout was completely flooded, which I didn't know until I was on the off ramp with six other vehicles, and all of us had to figure out how to turn around and head the wrong way on the off ramp and try and rejoin traffic on the highway. I took the long way around, losing precious time. You always get that feeling in your stomach that if you take too long, you'll miss the flames and the action. The owners will have left. Your story will be gone.

When I got to Rolling Green Lane, I had to park at the end of the blocked-off street. The other end was completely flooded. Firetrucks and hoses were scattered everywhere. Looky-loos were lining the sidewalk across the street, but no one knew who owned the townhome, which was completely destroyed by fire. I could see the fireplace of the front room because the roof was completely gone. The car was still in the garage, completely covered in debris.

At this point, it's still a rush. As a reporter, you're taking all of this in so you can set the scene. You're noting the location of the house, any peripheral damage, you're sizing up people standing in neighboring yards, asking yourself if they look distressed enough to be the owners of the house so you can go get the scoop. At this point, you're still a reporter. You're the job.

But then I found them. I crossed the road, walked past hoses and firetrucks, parted a crowd of people and asked a woman if she knew who lived there. She pointed me to the woman who was standing next to her, the one who was staring with disbelief at what was once her home. And the one next to it was her parents' home. And on the other side was her sister's home. And the last damaged townhome belonged to her friends.

This is when the job starts to strip away a little bit. The rush of the big story is replaced by empathy and sadness. You ask the questions you know you're supposed to ask, but you find that they're not at all mechanical. You want to ask them how they feel, if they have a place to stay. You want to know they're going to be OK. And, even though they're strangers to you, you want them to know that you care and that you're sorry this happened to them.

You hear a lot about objectivity when it comes to being a journalist. Objectivity is very important. We mustn't be biased in our reporting. But when it comes to tragedy, we must also be able to convey hardship in a real and honest way. And I can't imagine how one would do that without empathy and compassion. I am a reporter, but I'm human first. And when I feel for someone who has suffered great loss, it only helps me write the truth about the tragedy.

It's funny how you can be a reporter for eight years and still forget that chasing after the big story is fun at first until you're confronted with reality. Then it's not just "the storm story." It's people in the midst of one of the worst moments of their lives.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked your article. I liked your honesty and how sincere you were. That is great that you have empathy and compassion! That will take you far! :) I am glad you were able to separate a big story for the news to seeing the sadness in the people who lost their home. Keep that compassion! Peace! :)